Such expressions as that famous one of Linnæus, and which we often meet with in a more or less concealed form, that the characters do not make the genus, but that the genus gives the characters, seem to imply that something more is included in our classification, than mere resemblance. I believe that something more is included; and that propinquity of descent,—the only known cause of the similarity of organic beings,—is the bond, hidden as it is by various degrees of modification, which is partially revealed to us by our classifications (Darwin, 1859, p. 413f).

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Biology & Teleology

“Met the ghost of Stephen Foster at the Hotel Paradise
This is what I told him as I gazed into his eyes:
Rooms were made for carpets,
Towers made for spires,
Ships were made for cannonades to fire off from inside them ..."
(Squirrel Nut Zippers, 2002)

Findings of a recent study published in Cognition state that:
    "... college-educated adults display scientifically unwarranted teleological explanations with ease. Such findings highlight the challenges faced by educators in both the life and physical sciences. The source of popular resistance to scientific ideas appears to run deep" (Kelemen & Rosset, 2009: 143).
They certainly 'run deep' in biological systematics and in the philosophy of biology as a newly published article in the Journal of Biogeography by Heads (2009) clearly demonstrates.

According to Heads, Darwin's move away from teleological argumentation was rejected by neodarwinists who preferred purpose over structure:
    "... as his knowledge of biology and laws of growth deepened, Darwin learned to avoid teleology. Through this process he left his background behind and evolved into a modern (Renaissance) scientist. Nevertheless, Darwin's later work has been ignored whereas his earlier arguments have been co-opted as support for teleology, panselectionism and centre of originism." (Heads, 2009: Online)
Teleology and biology have been inseparable since Aristotle despite the attempts by Roger Bacon, Rene Descarte, Baruch Spinoza and Wolfgang von Goethe to undermine it completely. German idealists didn't help, neither did 19th century English naturalists, who like Kant sought to replace a theological or 'higher purpose' with Natural 'intention'.

Heads provides several excellent examples of natural teleology in systematic biology:
    "... many features of organisms are teleological, a bird's wings are for flying; eyes are for seeing ..." (Ayala, 2004:65).
    "A rock may not have a purpose but an eye does. Eyes and hands do not just happen for no reason" (Ruse, 2003:33).
Teleology, according to Heads, seems to be embraced by some philosophers of biology:
    "... a vitally important tool for looking into the organic world" (Ruse, 2002: 47).
The problem of teleology is rampant in systematics and biogeography, with few opposing it and others, like Ernst Mayr, using weak arguments:
    "[Mayr] recognized that the teleology in biology was a serious problem. His solution was to suggest that the modern synthesis is not really teleological, and that it uses teleological language but not teleological thinking" (Heads, 2009: Online).
I believe that Heads, like Kelemen & Rosset (2009), has pin-pointed the problem behind teleology, namely we start out as teleologists. Once we accept this fact, we have a lot of unlearning to do. I whole-heartily recommend Heads (2009) for students of systematics and biogeography.

Malte C. Ebach

Ayala, F.J. (2004) Design without designer: Darwin's greatest discovery. Debating design: from Darwin to DNA (ed. by W.A. Dembski and M. Ruse), pp. 55–80. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Heads, M. (2009). Darwin’s changing views on evolution: from centres of origin and teleology to vicariance and incomplete lineage sorting Journal of Biogeography DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2699.2009.02127.x
Kelemen, D., & Rosset, E. (2009). The Human Function Compunction: Teleological explanation in adults Cognition, 111 (1), 138-143 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2009.01.001
Ruse, M. (2002) Evolutionary biology and teleological thinking. Functions: new essays in the philosophy of psychology and biology (ed. by A. Ariew, R. Cummins and M. Perlman), pp. 33–62. Oxford University Press, New York.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Phylogeology – A New Revolution in Phylogenetics

From the Wollongong Herald

Evolutionary biologists were stunned this week by the news of Geological Phylogenetics. "Genetics is dead" says geologist Prof. Trevor Bruce of the University of Ulladulla, Australia. For 20 years molecular DNA has changed the way biologists do phylogenetics. Geological Phylogenetics, or Phylogeology, proposes to dispense with biological data all together. Prof. Bruce explains, "Molecular systematics has removed any notion of morphology, anatomy and taxonomy. We intend to get rid of molecules, making phylogenetics essentially free of any biological data". The benefits of phylogeology are that only atoms will be analyzed. "All you need is a very large industrial-strength food processor and a mass spectrometer". Prof Bruce's team has successfully pureed an array of organisms including two pot plants, a goldfish and Dr. Hall's cat. "She wasn't too happy about it, so we made her first author" says Prof. Bruce. "So far we have analyzed percentages of 30 common elements including carbon, calcium iron and copper". And success! Already Prof. Bruce's team has the data for most common household pets and their relationships. "It's simple" explains Dr. Hall, "a dog and a cat will have a similar atomic make-up, just like two similar rocks. As genetics has brought its methods and theory into phylogenetics, we bring geological techniques. Pureeing and 'mass-specing' critters are one of them".

But phylogeology has its critics. Molecular systematists have dismissed Dr Hall's contribution. "DNA and molecular data is the basic unit of heredity. Nothing can replace it" say Drs Goodray and Frat. "Rubbish!" retorts Prof. Bruce, "molecular data is fraught with paralogy, xenology and dodgy alignment. They may be dealing with a 'basic unit of heredity', but we are dealing with the basic unit of all matter". Already new applications have been proposed. "Forget DNA Barcoding, now we have 'Tricording' – a way to measure all matter within an organism" says Dr. Hall. The proposal has lead large funding bodies to drop proposals for DNA research. The NSF, NERC and other national grants are excited by phylogeology. "Finally we can get rid of that expensive out-of-date DNA mumbo-jumbo. Now we can categorize phylogenetics as organic chemistry" says Dr. Komby of the Research Funding Board. "Imagine how much money we'll save, not sequencing data, getting rid of the Tree of Life (AToL) and all other biological systematic projects. This heralds a new age in evolution".

'Darwin Year', marked by the 200th anniversary of the father of evolution, represents a new era of development - from the biological toward the physical sciences. "Biology is simply stamp-collecting" remarks Prof. Bruce, "we're better off working out how the origin of the cosmos has shaped life on Earth". Even creationists have responded to Prof. Bruce's call. "This is the end of evolution" states Mark McCall, Director of the DIY Creationist Center, Kansas, "This new development disproves life altogether". Phylogeology has already made an impact on financiers who understand its cost-effective nature. Investors, like Arnold Grady, are beaming, "Considering that the technology behind food processors is rapidly evolving, we could puree, say a dog, in five seconds and have it mass-speced in ten. I'd buy into that".

Biology may be on its last legs, but what of the bird-watcher or fish-fancier? We ask amateur fish breeder Allan Cement, "They are fish, not atoms! Can't scientists just study them?"

Malte C. Ebach